WITNESS, an installation by Dan Solomon, In conjunction with ICP’s exhibit “JFK November 22: A Bystander’s View of History.
Interview by Raphael Shammaa, November 2013
Shortly before 9:00 AM on November 23rd, as New Yorkers prepare to settle at their desks for the day, I meet with Dan Solomon for a tour of his photographic installation at ICP’s glass pavilion on the Southwest corner of Forty Third Street and Avenue of the Americas in New York City. Dan’s large scale images are exaggeratedly blurred and color saturated and are affixed to the glass from the inside, facing the street. Grass is present in every image and there’s a lot of green all around. Low resolution images of families, as well as children and of men taking pictures seem to depict park scenes with people out for a stroll on a fine day. One of these silhouettes, a large female form, stands in the middle of its frame wrapped in a tomato red overcoat. There are more suggestions of picture-taking for the family album here and there. The mood is sunny. America is at its peak.
To the right of the entrance is a lone black-and-white image so overblown that it is hard to make out. Below it is a body of explanatory text.
In spite of sunlight bouncing off the glass, it is chilly on the sidewalk by now. I move closer to read the text as Dan fills in the blanks for me.
Dan explains that the installation’s sunny pictures were lifted from Abraham Zapruder’s inadvertent home movie of the 1963 Kennedy assassination. Through image appropriation and manipulation, Dan effectively highjacks Zapruder’s camera – re-directing its probing lens, fifty years after the fact, to focus on the periphery of the event and, in the process, detect the presence of bystanders in the background, some caught in the act of capturing their own souvenir snapshots of the presidential visit. Another memento seeker, Mary Ann Moorman, clicks unawares just as the bullet strikes the president. A tiny portion of her black-and-white polaroid appears to the right of the entrance blown up beyond recognition – although, when glimpsed from accross the street, it manages to recover enough definition to resurrect as the all-time signature visual of this historic event.
I sat with Dan to chat.
Raphael: How many times have you looked at Zapruder’s film to the bitter end – I’m not asking for an exact number of times…
Dan: I looked at it as a film dozens of times, but then in order to do the project I downloaded and created a folder of all four hundred and eighty six (486) stills, and I went through the movie frame by frame many times looking for the type of composition where the figures were not obscured by the automobile or by…
Raphael: These were working images?
Raphael: Did you build immunity against the brutality of the event? How did you deal with that?
Dan: No, definitely not. It’s impossible to see frame 313 and not be horrified by the brutality of the image every time.
Raphael: Why was the event so significant to you?
Dan: For me, the event is not just witnessing the death of a president, but a shift in the national consciousness from one of promise and hope to a certain type of brutality and despair that encapsulated much of our experience of the sixties. It actually started earlier that year with the killing of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Church Bombing that killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. It is an act that portends the death of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and the students at Penn State and other civil rights martyrs and, of course, the more than 50 thousand people who died in the Vietnam war.
Raphael: The remarkable thing about this assassination is that everybody still remembers where they were when they first heard of it.
Dan: I was six years old and it’s one of my, I believe two earliest memories from my childhood. I was in first grade class and a teacher walked into our room and leaned over and whispered in my teacher’s ear and my teacher started crying, and then there was an announcement that we were being dismissed early, and as we walked out onto the street, the street was filled with mothers weeping waiting to pick us up, and then I remember basically for the next four days just watching the mourning and the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald unfold on T.V. It was my first extended encounter with death and mourning, and of course television news.
Raphael: it’s interesting that, having been part of the emotional upheaval, you positioned this installation as a conceptual undertaking and I am curious to ask about the concept underlying the Witness project.
Dan: Well for me, the preliminary concept was to isolate the figures, the images in the background that were not the focus of the Zapruder film, and bring attention to those figures. As I did, I became struck by the ethereal nature of the figures as I blew them up, and seemed like metaphors for the fading of memory. As I sat there I couldn’t believe fifty years had passed. I began to wonder what became of these witnesses and realized that some of them would by now be in their seventies or eighties or no longer with us; and the thought came to me that, unless their memories had been safeguarded in memoirs or recordings, these memories would become erased once these witnesses were gone, and thought about how tenuous memory is when trying to recall details from events that occurred fifty years ago. It’s almost more like I have a sense impression for stories I’ve retold myself or reread in history and it blends with what one actually observed,; so, for me, memory was an important factor. As I dug deeper I started thinking about certain epistemological issues, like the nature of knowledge. I became fascinated by the fact that we have this event that was recorded on movie film, on still photography, and dozens of eye witnesses and still there is absolutely no consensus as to what happened that day, no consensus as to how many shooters there were or how many shots were fired. Was the president shot from behind? From the front? It reinforced this whole concept about the limits of photography and film to fully record the full truth and complexity of an event.
Raphael: Why is that important to you? Why is the idea of fading memories important to you, and why was it important enough to turn it into a project?
Dan: Well memory is a form of consciousness, and consciousness, if one has read Henry James, is a form of morality. So paying attention is a moral issue. For me paying attention to the event and paying attention to the margins of the event was an issue of engagement. I felt that it was important to engage this event in its completeness. As opposed to focusing on whether the president was shot from the front or from behind, it was trying to engage the event and try to get a sense of what it might have been like to be there.
The little girl in my project is actually in the background of that horrific frame 313 when the second bullet hits the president. When I was working with her the first time around, I didn’t focus on which frame she was in. I focused on this magical sense of the innocence she represented, the billowing dress, the sense of her almost floating in air and, eventually, while focusing on her I realized that she was witnessing this horrible act – in the most horrific of the frames, and that brought to my attention what must it have been for her as a sudden shift to go from the innocence of childhood with, most likely, no knowledge of death, tragedy, horror, to this instantaneous transformation where she faced this terrible knowledge. I became interested in this liminal state, this transitional state that we all pass through, though perhaps not as suddenly or dramatically as what must have happened with this little girl.
Raphael: You manipulated the images, you lifted them out of context, making them less personal, more generic in a way because of the extreme blur – and yet so much more present because you brought them out of obscurity really, made them life-sized and then you say to us: here they are; look at these individuals.
Dan: The only thing I would dispute is I don’t feel like I ever made them generic. I think that the whole time one of the things that motivated me was to pay attention to these figures that were perhaps marginalized and bring them front and center, so while they are indistinct, I never felt that I was trying to create them as universal images. I was really trying to bring a certain sense of focus, attention, interest in their individual presence. Does that make sense?
Raphael: I understand. And you also tell us that by re-contextualizing the movie images shifts the focus, making the viewer available to observe the spectators instead of the violent action the spectators are actually watching and, in so doing you’re freeing the viewer of the installation to consider questions on the nature of knowledge and truth.
Dan: I think that’s well said, and of course it also deals with the nature of memory. As John Szarkowski, the great curator, observed “the central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture’s edge—the line that separates in from out—and on the shapes that are created by it.” I think I am working in this tradition. In my case by appropriating and radically cropping the image, by focusing on a tiny portion of the source material and reworking it I’m saying look at the individual in this frame look at the color of this woman’s coat; look at this family, the body language of the father, of the mother, of the son, of her hat and purse…
Raphael: And how does that lead us to truth?
Dan: Well like I said, that’s only one aspect of the project. Art is also about creating in many cases. I think many of these pictures are also visually just very beautiful, and when something is beautiful it’s going to capture attention and make you look, so as an artist I want to capture your attention. I want you to stop. I want you to look. I want you to consider, and perhaps start thinking about those issues – those deeper philosophical issues, but that certainly was not my only intention. My intention was to bring out and share what I thought was this incredible poetry embedded in this sort of rough home movie. I think there’s poetry everywhere in everyday life and the thing perhaps even more important than engaging these philosophical issues is finding that poetry. William Carlos Williams writes “It’s difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day day for the lack of what’s found there”. And what I was trying to do was do some sort of a reversal, was I was trying to find the poetry in the news. The Zapruder film is a document. Evidence. It was not designed to be a work of art, and so I was taking a piece of evidence, a piece of documentation and I was sifting through it, finding these fragments of beauty.
Raphael: Were you also trying to restore more of what was going on at that moment, rather than just the violent act, more of the overall picture?
Dan: I was trying to bring back the full complexity of the event. The scene was richer and less simple than our viewing would have suggested.
Dan: Not just the limousine and the president grasping his neck, or his wife cradling him or crawling out of the car, or all the things we’ve reduced this scene to. I was trying to bring it back to it’s full dynamic… what you might call in film criticism the Mise en Scene. By focusing us on a portion of the scene and highlighting its strange mysterious beauty we would eventually go back to the full frame and become aware of how much is really going on there.
Raphael: So everyone is hypnotized by what is happening to the president yet life keeps going on on the margins of the main event.
Dan: Yes, and of course no one was affected more than the president and then his wife and children by the events – but everyone was affected, and everyone was transformed. I wanted to bring attention to the other participants in the event. I also wanted as an artist to respond to this event. Andy Warhol took the different images of Jackie mourning, of Jackie observing the swearing in of Johnson, and created various lithographic images that brought attention to the many faces of her grief when he did his multiple Jackies. I am doing something akin to that, but I’m bringing attention to these various figures. With the Jackies the emphasis was on her face. In my images the emphasis is more on their presence, and of course because we know so little about them they are not just a metaphor for the fading of memory but they are also a metaphor for the limits of what we can really know about each other. These limits are not just about what they saw, but what they were feeling, what they were thinking at that moment. It reminds me of a lyric by Bob Dylan “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above. And I’ll never know the same about you your holiness or your kind of love. And it makes me feel so sorry.” In these images I feel that sort of ache that comes from our inability to truly know one another.
Raphael: What do you feel is photography’s place in all this? What is photography’s role and what are its limitations?
Dan: Well photography’s greatest strength is it’s ability to capture and freeze a moment in time. It’s limitations is ironically this facticity. I am trying to move from the concreteness of photography to a more abstract form that one might experience in painting.
Raphael: More open-ended.
Dan: Yes. And I was trying to use photographic tools and push against the boundaries of the limitations of photography.
Raphael: So when it’s all said and done, what can we take away from this installation?
Dan: I think we’ve been talking this whole time, there’s so much to take away, in fact each time one looks at it one comes away with different experiences and different types of knowledge. I think what one comes away with is the mystery, I think, of existence. Kennedy… what happened there, that’s a mystery about a crime, but there are greater mysteries than who killed Kennedy, I mean there’s the mystery of sight – what we see and what we don’t see. There’s the mystery of what people feel and think, and that will always remain a mystery to us. There’s a beauty of the form and color of the figure on the ground. There is the mystery of knowledge and truth, what Keats meditated on in his Ode to a Grecian Urn: Beauty is truth, truth beauty —that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ I’m not suggesting that I’ve in any way approached the incredible complexity and beauty of Keats sonnet, but I just find that it’s such a complex and compelling thought.
Raphael: So is this a call on the viewer to become engaged, to become curious and look for more, beyond the obvious?
Dan: It’s a call to the viewer, I mean all good art makes demands on the viewer, the reader, the listener, to pay attention, so that is the call on the viewer here – to pay attention, just as deep reading and poetry yields pleasures, and delights, and knowledge, hopefully deep looking will yield pleasures, and delights, and knowledge to the engaged viewer.
Raphael: “Witness”, named after your installation, is your first book of photographs and it was just published by Nazraeli press, I think, last week?
Dan: Yes. It’s in their One Picture Book series, which is a remarkable series that has included books by Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Martin Parr, Alex Soth and Todd Hido, and many other fine contemporary photographers. It’s a series where an artist is given one to twelve images to express themselves, and in the back of each book there’s tipped in an original print, and my book “Witness” is made up of seven of these Witness images from the series, and in the back of the book there’s a tipped in gelatin silver print of…
Raphael: Should I stop you now so as not to reveal the end of the story? Where is it sold?
Dan: You can get it through Nazraeli, Vincent Borrelli, or Photoeye.
Dan Solomon’s photographic installation “Witness” can be viewed from the street at ICP’s school pavilion, on the corner of 43rd Street and Avenue of the Americas, New York City. It is on view through January 19, 2014, in conjunction with ICP’s exhibit “JFK November 22: A Bystander’s View of History.
A native New Yorker living in Monarch Beach, California, Solomon has been involved with photography as an artist, curator, collector, author, and publisher. He is guest curator of the exhibition Surveying the Terrain currently at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) Raleigh and previously curated Edweard Muybridge in Panama and Mexico, Edward Curtis: Sites and Structures, Stieglitz and his Circle the Art of the Photogravure, and The Beauty of the Albumen Print. His personal photography collection is housed at the National Gallery of Art, and his book “Sites and Structures” was chosen as one of the best photography books of the year by The New York Times. He is currently working on a book of Idris Kahn’s photographs, which will be published early next year. “Witness,” his first book of photographs, will be published by Nazraeli Press in November as part of their One Picture Book series.
(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Raphael Shamaa, Images @ Dan Solomon)